Efficient use of water isn’t enough to save our springs

By Robert E. Ulanowicz

This is a repost of a Jan. 31st, 2015 guest editorial to The Gainesville Sun. Dr. Ulanowicz is a member of the Advisory Panel to the Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute.

As Americans we are understandably proud of our commitment to efficiency. It is no surprise, then, that in order to save our aquifer and springs in North Florida, we encourage ever more efficient ways of using water.

At the individual level, we endeavor to install water-saving showers and toilets or to plant drought resistant shrubs and lawns. On a larger scale we seek to develop more efficient ways of using water for irrigation, such as replacing center-pivot irrigation by “dropped-nozzle” application of water to crops.

The records show that efficiencies can indeed foster per-capita decreases in consumption, but it may come as a surprise to many that, at the community level, the drive to enhance efficiency usually results in an increase in overall water consumption!

This paradox has been documented through the outcomes of a number of projects that were intended to save groundwater by implementing more efficient ways of irrigating crops. In regions that ranged from Kansas to New Mexico and Colorado, increased water use followed in the wake of adopting greater efficiencies.

This counter-intuitive phenomenon is not new. It was described 150 years ago by British economist William Jevons. Unfortunately, this inconvenient reality, known as “Jevons’ Paradox,” has been little-heralded by economists since then.

There are many ways whereby improved efficiency can lead to greater overall consumption, but in most cases the savings gained by better efficiency are overwhelmed by an increase in total demand, spurred on either by the new technology itself or by extrinsic factors.

The implication for Florida’s programs to rescue our groundwater is clear: emphasis solely on water-saving efficiencies is destined to failure. Certainly, as individuals we need to redouble our efforts at conservation and efficient water use, but at the community level it becomes necessary that we reorder our priorities and focus instead primarily upon ways to limit total extractions.

Regulating total use was actually the intended mission of Florida’s water management districts. Toward that end, the districts issue Consumptive Use Permits (CUPs) and establish Minimum Flow Levels (MFLs) for lakes, rivers and springs.

Unfortunately, as the courts have discovered, MFLs are difficult to define, making them almost impossible to adjudicate and enforce.

Applications for CUPs, meanwhile, are almost never denied. To make matters worse, incentives that promote Jevons’ dynamics are actually written into some CUPs. The permit regulating extractions by the Jacksonville utilities, for example, rewards the reuse of wastewater (an efficiency) by allowing additional withdrawals from the aquifer without requiring any replacement!

commonspoemThe bare truth is that, aside from urban residents, use of a scarce and necessary common resource remains free to major users. This situation inevitably leads to the well-known “tragedy of the commons,” or catastrophic overuse.

At this time we do not have a firm idea of how much water is being extracted from the aquifer. To avert tragedy we need to begin to measure all that is pumped from the Floridan aquifer. A program to monitor all users — domestic (urban and rural), industrial and agricultural — must be initiated.

Secondly, we need to use water balance models, independent of developmental goals and desires, to establish a cap on what can be sustainably removed from the Floridan aquifer. While capping withdrawals might seem draconian to some in North Florida, it should be mentioned that caps restricting pumping have already been established around Orlando and Tampa. Such limits are long overdue for North Florida.

Finally, we must develop a schedule of charges to be assessed to all users commensurate with their metered use.

Once fees have been implemented (a possible referendum issue?), greater efficiencies will arise quickly and spontaneously. A convenient mnemonic for this strategy is E=mc2, or “Effective management consists of metering, capping and costing.”

We in North Florida are indeed fortunate to have our springs and lakes as visible indicators of the health of our aquifer.

calculate and internalizeElsewhere, as with the Ogallala aquifer in the Midwest, the deleterious effects of overpumping remain largely invisible, and these groundwater resources are being tapped to extinction.

Of almost equal importance to our well-being, it is extremely fortuitous that we possess our springs and lakes for recreation, scenic beauty and inspiration.

They are outstanding riches that truly deserve extraordinary efforts for their preservation.

However, if we fail to make our top management priority the capping of total extraction from the Floridan, it becomes inevitable that we will lose these irreplaceable treasures.

MaximumpowerspeedlimitWe need to redouble our efforts at conservation and efficient water use, but we must reorder our priorities and focus primarily on ways to limit total extractions.

Editor’s note: Is Jevons’ Paradox an early Economist’s observation of the Maximum Power Principle
What are the best policies for preserving precious stocks such as aquifers in our complex society in descent?

Developing a future balance of nature and society

Crafoord Prize 1987 HT Odum's goals (from Box 1 of UF Library Odum Special Collection)
Crafoord Prize 1987 HT Odum’s goals (from Box 1 of UF Library Odum Special Collection)

In 1987, H.T. and Eugene Odum were jointly awarded the Crafoord Prize by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. The Crafoord Prize is the Nobel equivalent for the biosciences, math, geosciences, and astronomy.

Howard Odum was one of the first to realize seriously the dangers of using fossil fuels. In his book “Environment, Power and Society” (1971) and “Energy Basis for man and Nature” (1976),he developed the theory that the processes of ecological systems are dimensioned according to the amount of solar energy reaching the earth, and that extra energy increases in various forms cause damaging disturbances.

In “Systems Ecology” (1983) he stresses man´s responsibility in the biosphere, a responsibility for what may be termed a permanent economy. The “work” that nature performs for man, for example in the production of forests, fish and clean water must in his view be made use of, not dissipated through interference that can cause unforeseeable future damage (Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, 1987).

When asked about what he would do with the prize, H.T. Odum said,  “Perhaps we can obtain matching funds and establish the program that we have long discussed on Developing a Future Balance of Nature and Society. We could do such research projects as:

  1. finding ways to make the economy of humans and that of nature cooperative

  2. planning for the lower energy world that is coming

  3. find public policies which can maintain economic prosperity when growth is no longer possible.” (Odum, 1987)

More than twenty-five years later are we any further along as a society in our understanding or prioritization of this research need?

Energy, ecology & economics–part III

By Mary Logan

This is the third and final post in a series revisiting HT Odum’s classic Ambio paper on the 3Es (Ambio, 1973). The article was republished in Mother Earth News, and the reprint is still available online through Minnesotans for Sustainability. The first 15 points are covered in part one  and part two of the post series. The final five points, 16-20 of the Ambio paper, are extracted and quoted below, with updated explanations. In this final section of the paper, Odum described relative energy availability during stages of growth and descent, and recommended policies for energy descent. Continue reading Energy, ecology & economics–part III

Prosperous Equality

By Elliott Campbell

Frustration. That is my typical response to the news of the world. There are so many ills and so little substantive dialogue, in media or government, about real pathways to change. And for those of us concerned with peak energy and the potential collapse of civilization, there is no dialogue, no acknowledgement of even the potential of a problem. A feeling of helplessness and even resignation is a natural response to disenfranchisement. Adherent to the Maximum Empower Principle, the world is self-organizing to maximize empower. That means that energy and resource use continues to expand as long as possible and a growth based economy maximizes empower. In the current state of energy resources, stopping growth and transitioning to a steady state or dynamic equilibrium economy is simply not possible, even as we exhaust our earth’s resources and constantly increase our risk of catastrophic climate change. There is a certain fatalism to that can be demoralizing. Why bother working for change if significant deviation from the growth paradigm is not possible, due to thermodynamic law?

Figure depicting the income gap in the United States

What is possible is preparation, by creating a society that can correct its course, to adapt. The way we govern and run our economies is not now structured in a way that it would even be possible to transition successfully to a lower energy world. This is something we can change, and we will need to in the coming years. In their book, A Prosperous Way Down, the Odums laid out a pathway for preparation, transition, and descent. The policies and actions for preparation are what we should be working towards now. A recent work by Richard Wilkenson and Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level, provides strong evidence for action towards perhaps the most important step for adjusting society to be able to descend: reduction of inequality. They present evidence linking higher inequality to increased instances mental health issues, increased drug use, decreased physical health and life expectancy, decreased average educational performance, higher rate of teenage births, higher rates of violent crimes, higher rates of imprisonment, and fewer opportunities for upward mobility. The authors compared degree of inequality and social ills between 23 rich countries, and within the 50 US States, and found statistically significant relationships between inequality and all the problems listed above. The US has the highest degree of inequality in the world, with the gap increasing rapidly for the past 30 years. Continue reading Prosperous Equality

Pushing the Prosperous Way Down

By Elliott Campbell

In my experience the concept of a “prosperous way down” from the perspective of one immersed in the current cultural and economic paradigm of constant growth is anathema to some and dubious to most. I was asked to speak to two environmental groups, The Baltimore Green Forum and the Greenbelt Climate Action Network, as a result of the post I wrote for this blog last October. While the organizers of the groups, Sam Hopkins and Lore Rosenthal, of BGF and GCAN, respectively, were very supportive I was skeptical of the reception the ideas espoused by the Odums in A Prosperous Way Down would receive. This fear caused me to debate whether or not to present prosperous way in the class I taught last semester at University of Maryland, Energy and the Environment. However, I strongly believe that talking about the prosperous way down, spreading the knowledge, is one of, if not the, most important contributions I can make to society as a scientist, so agreed to both presentations and made the prosperous way down lecture the last lecture in the class.

Click this image to go to his personal site
Click this image to go to Chefurka’s personal site

When communicating these problems I find it is informative to think in terms of Paul Chefurka’s 5 stages of awareness, analogous to the Kubler-Ross model 5 stages of grief. Continue reading Pushing the Prosperous Way Down

The speech Obama needed to make

By Mary Logan

404govtnotfoundI’ve stayed away from politics pointedly in posts, because voting for either party is still just voting for growth, with different labels applied.  I do not believe that the current corporate giveaway that we call a political system is fixable unless we elect a leader who is ecologically and energetically literate. I doubt that will happen. That said, here is an earth day wish for real servant leadership which would fix our problems. The post is directed at a specific leader, Obama, since the United States is the worst offender in terms of extreme behavior and unsustainability.

As your president, I can set the agenda for what needs to be done, but I am relatively powerless unless I have the backing and the will of the people behind me, to mobilize the other two branches of government–the legislative Congress and the judicial Supreme Court. Increasingly, the checks and balances in this country are creating a stalemate, which only the powerful corporate lobbyists can overcome, and only in their favor. I am asking now for your help in averting a major crisis in this country, one that we have never faced before. Continue reading The speech Obama needed to make

Social justice and solar equity

 By Mary Logan

“El socialismo puede llegar solo en bicicleta” (Socialism will only arrive by bike) —José Antonio Viera-Gallo, Assistant Secretary of Justice in the government of Salvador Allende (from Illich, Energy & Equity, 1973)

What is the relationship between social justice and resource sustainability? Many authors have tackled this subject from many directions, including Illich (1973), and O’Riordan (1976). In the developed world, freedom includes emancipation from nature, where freedom does not occur until we escape our limits. The spiritual is separate from the material, and energetic limits are not a consideration. Adequate society means that everyone else attains the first world countries’ level of development (Mies & Shiva, 1993).

Various authors have attempted to categorize environmental ethical thought. In a recent issue of Green European Journal, Boulanger included a useful figure adapted from Hopwood, Mellor & O’Brien (2005) that places various groups within a framework of two different criteria; how focused are we on the importance of equality versus our orientation towards environmental concerns? The implied question Boulanger is asking is, what are the proper politics for a world that is reaching its limits, and where do your values fit within this spectrum? Is this the best way to view the issue of social justice, and is the diagram inclusive enough in considering our limits? Can we have our equality cake and our environment too? Continue reading Social justice and solar equity

It’s not the economy, it’s the stupid paradigm

By Paula Williams

Dr. Williams wrote her dissertation on The role of social paradigm in human perception and response to environmental change. She is the director of UAA’s Office of Sustainability.

Americans’ level of concern for the environment waxes and wanes, depending on how the economy is faring, as illustrated in the 2011 Gallup chart below.  The chart shows responses to the question whether the economy or the environment should be given preference asked from 1985 through 2011. Note the trending decline in concern for the environment starting in 2001 with a precipitous drop in 2008 when the economy hit the skids. It’s a truism that our environmental behaviors and our understanding of causes of environmental degradation always lag behind the level of our environmental concern.  Why? Continue reading It’s not the economy, it’s the stupid paradigm

O Declínio Próspero em Português!

DeclinioProsperoO livro O Declínio Próspero já está disponível em Português!

The book A Prosperous Way Down is now available in Portuguese!

In paperback (65 Reais): http://www.universovozes.com.br/livrariavozes/web/view/DetalheProdutoCommerce.aspx?ProdId=8532644031


Também abaixo uma conversa 20 minutos sobre Emergy pelo professor Ortega.

Winter transitions

Winter solstice is a season for rest, reflection, and feasting, in celebration of the change of seasons and the deep winter ahead. Per Wiki:

The winter solstice may have been immensely important because communities were not certain of living through the winter, and had to be prepared during the previous nine months. Starvation was common in winter between January and April, also known as the famine months. In temperate climates, the midwinter festival was the last feast celebration, before deep winter began. Most cattle were slaughtered so they would not have to be fed during the winter, so it was almost the only time of year when a supply of fresh meat was available. The majority of wine and beer made during the year was finally fermented and ready for drinking at this time. The concentration of the observances were not always on the day commencing at midnight or at dawn, but the beginning of the pre-Romanized day, which falls on the previous eve. Since the event is seen as the reversal of the Sun’s ebbing presence in the sky, concepts of the birth or rebirth of sun gods have been common and, in cultures using winter solstitially based cyclic calendars, the year as reborn has been celebrated with regard to life-death-rebirth deities or new beginnings such as Hogmanay’s redding, a New Year cleaning tradition. Also reversal is yet another usual theme as in Saturnalia’s slave and master reversals.

In this season of peace and joy, I have difficulty in focusing on some of the unpleasant aspects of all of this. As the old paradigm begins to fall away, and the system reaches a tipping point,  interpretations in the media become more disjointed and surreal, and less explanatory. As I read about events of the day, it is hard to get beyond “yep, there it is.” When I reboot and begin again, where do I start? Finals week is here, and we will begin posting again starting next weekend.

Cities–too big to fail?

by Mary Logan

Odum, et al., 1995 Zonal Organization of Cities and Environment

Many people have the misguided belief that cities are energy efficient. Cities compared to other environments are often more efficient with respect to transportation, because fuel use actually drops off in city centers due to the availability of mass transit. But the embodied emergy as a whole in the infrastructure, people, and information in cities suggests the opposite. Cities are actually energy hogs, that concentrate energy. In a future of waning energy, are our biggest cities too big to fail? What size city is sustainable?

This post is a follow-up to last week’s post about our dialogue about big cities and descent. Examples are everywhere this week of people projecting their fears on long-deferred retribution by Mother Nature and the need to wield war using our technological tools to maintain our cities. Sandy is evidence of a heating world, with bigger swings in weather and a hurricane one week, a northeaster the next. There have been a flood of victorious articles suggesting that I told you so about climate change.  Even though Sandy was only category 1 or 2 storm, it was over a very broad area with a very high total kinetic energy because of a hot ocean, even very late in hurricane season in a season with many storms. But the impacts of Sandy were complicated by the population density in the northeast. Perhaps The Weather Channel needs to make up a new metric for landfall in complex, urban settings. The more high-tech complexity we have, the more widespread, serious, and long-term the impacts. These scenarios will be increasingly frequent in the future, as we turn the lights out in a room with too many people. Continue reading Cities–too big to fail?

Sandy and digital snow days

by Mary Logan

My thoughts and concern goes out to those struggling with this unprecedented American storm in the northeast. As I write this early on Tuesday morning, watching this game-changer of a storm, a myriad of thoughts go through my head. The storm event is just the beginning. Rivers will flood, and snows will accumulate. Recovery will be long and slow. Recovery will be hampered by problems with energy delivery, complexity, and density of populations. Just in time, digitized systems that are overly complex will be challenged. News will filter out slowly, with initial optimism about the extent of the damage, followed by increasingly pessimistic reports about the size and extent of the problems as communication begins to be reestablished. This post describes Sandy as a catastrophic pulse in relation to the problems of dense urban living, complexity, and digitization. Continue reading Sandy and digital snow days

A Sobering Report from the Eco-Summit

By Elliott Campbell, PhD

Bio: Elliott recently received his doctorate from the University of Maryland, studying with David Tilley and received a MS degree from the University of Florida under Mark Brown, both of whom studied with H.T. Odum. Elliott’s grandmother is Betty Odum, widow and longtime collaborator of H.T., and father is Daniel Campbell, a senior researcher at the EPA, so it is safe to say ecology is in his blood. He is currently a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Maryland.

Dr. Elliott Campbell

I had the pleasure of attending the 4th Eco-Summit, held in Columbus Ohio and hosted by William Mitsch at Ohio State University. This was a large conference, over 1600 people, featuring preeminent ecologists from around the world including Simon Levin, E.O. Wilson, Robert Costanza, Bernie Patten, Sven Jorgensen and plenary sessions by popular authors Jared Diamond and Lester Brown. As a recent PhD graduate and nascent systems ecologist I found the Eco-Summit to be edifying, inspiring, as well as incredibly frustrating. Continue reading A Sobering Report from the Eco-Summit

Hair of the dog, or, the limits of technology

By Mary Logan

This post is about the hopeful idea that technology is going to save us from having to adapt to descent. A recent article describes an episode of geopiracy to geoengineer the ocean, so we’re back at climate again, since this example provides particular insights and illustrations into our blindspots about the limits to growth and the limits of technology. Almost all environmental articles now mention climate, whether it is warranted in the discussion or not, so it is hard to avoid the topic. We are shoehorning every environmental problem into the same size small shoe of solutions. Is it lack of ecoliteracy? I also continue to beat this drum because one of Odum’s great concerns was that misunderstandings about the interconnected nature of our problems would lead to geoengineering of the planet. He recognized the hazards of industrial scale manipulation of the biosphere, and the danger of relying on the industrial machine for fixes.

Asking wrong questions….

Climate change is a situation where we have fastened on a subset of the real problem, which is population and economic growth. So we immediately frame the solution set in an even smaller space, which is geoengineering, or financial wizardry, or some other narrow solution to the wrong problem that benefits only a few, and further damages the environment. 

We have trained our minds to focus and analyze, thus we anxiously narrow our frame of reference when faced with big problems. Einstein said that  problems cannot be solved by the level of awareness that created them. He meant seeing the big picture, and avoiding doubling down on behaviors that got us where we are now. Or, in colloquial terms, What how fellow, thou knave, I pray thee let me and my fellow have a haire of the dog that bit us last night. And bitten were we bothe to the braine aright (Drunkard.com, from 1546). The idea that the hair of the dog was a cure dates back to the Greek, who believed that a dog bite would heal more quickly if you ate dog hair. Is technology a hair-of-the-dog cure for our energy bender?

We’re going to have to shift our world views to adapt. In an ongoing quest to broaden worldviews to consider the hierarchy of energy, here are some recent climate articles as examples of the limits of technology. Continue reading Hair of the dog, or, the limits of technology

Is climate change a euphemism for growth?

by Mary Logan

I have become sensitive to the silences that come during discussions about the world with others who view the world through a microscope. Silence or a change of topic suggests either denial of my point of view or failure to grasp my frame of reference. While I am peering through an energy lens or macroscope, others may view the world through a lens where money or some other construct makes the world go round instead. One question that stops conversations cold is, “What if our greatest societal challenge is not climate but growth?” That challenge sometimes elicits a glare signifying indignation or perhaps a sense of betrayal that I’m stepping away from my supposed congregation.

Two mechanisms may be occurring when speakers frame climate change as the most important problem that the world has to face. If one’s view of the world is that energy is unlimited, and that we can grow infinitely, and that the environment has a limitless ability to absorb our pollution, then growth is not an important issue. While most people probably know in their hearts that infinite growth is not sustainable, they do not know that energy has limits. So speakers may use a euphemism to subconsciously displace the problem of growth with climate change, since we have been taught the goal of economic growth as a fundamental precept of our society. Secondly, speakers who focus on climate may fail to grasp the severity of the problem of peak oil, because of declining net energy or emergy yields. Thus we lump other assaults on ecosystems such as growth of population, growth of the economy, extraction of resources and other forms of pollution within the problem of climate change. These problems are inextricably connected, but we prioritize them differently depending on our ability to think like a system. Continue reading Is climate change a euphemism for growth?

Hierarchy and money in a global hall of mirrors

by Mary Logan

Many authors have written about alternative forms of money, so I don’t need to canvas the topic. But I’m still thinking about the digitization of money and its role in our current monetary predicaments.  I recently watched a movie about time as an alternative currency, and I also attended a local lecture on time-banking. These thoughts converge for this post about traditional and alternative forms of money as an illustration of the hierarchy of money. Our economic information systems evolve with increasing complexity to match the complexity of our economies. Continue reading Hierarchy and money in a global hall of mirrors

What is money?

By Mary Logan

Our obsession with money will be an issue for many as we transition from a wealth-oriented capitalist system. Many blogs focus on money—how to make more, how to keep what you’ve got, how to transition to something different and still be “ahead of the game.” Where will these voices be when the currency quits? Judging from the heavy emphasis on money in the blogosphere, many may feel dislocated when the casino chips disappear from the game. We need to look more broadly at the problem of money–those who focus on money without seeing the nature of the real system behind it are still grieving for the loss of an artifact of post industrial society. How do we deal personally with issues of debt and money in transition to economic contraction, while manipulated currencies bank on continued growth?

My thoughts converge after a flurry of recent thoughtful articles about money, including several from permaculture.org.au. These articles converge with multiple questions from friends about the future of money. What do I do with my savings if they are becoming less valuable? Should I spend money to buy a house? Will the stock market persist as a way of gaining wealth? Should I be saving at all if money is inflating away to become less valuable? Continue reading What is money?

Taboo topics–nuclear waste

by Mary Logan

Sometimes  we are better defined by what we don’t talk about than the topics that our media, politics, and culture do focus on. Talking about radiation is taboo. Since radioecologists discovered energetic systems principles during the study of radioactive fallout, we can frame the discussion of nuclear waste hazards using systems principles, thus illustrating how the principles apply to our modern economies. This is a complex issue, so it is important to always start with topics by viewing the larger scale first to understand the big picture. We need to know why understanding this new hazard, radiation in the environment, is necessary, since our governing leaders are denying the dangers. We need to understand the linkages between the physics, chemistry, and ecology of nuclear waste. Continue reading Taboo topics–nuclear waste

Energy ethics for survival of people in nature

by Mary Logan

“Everything and anything that takes place on earth involves a flow of potential energy, provided primarily from the sun, as it streams toward a pool of dispersed or expended heat. The pathways of the stream are shaped by a hierarchy of directive forces that have evolved under nature’s laws as by-products of the stream. These directive forces include wayside storages of energy in the material patterns and dynamic circulations of the earth’s substances, including all the elements of the biosphere from the earliest and most primitive to the latest and most civilized or spiritual elements of human feeling, thinking, and behavior in the arts, sciences, and religions” (Odum, 1977, p. 110). . . “Although most humans in the recent century of rich and rising energy have lost awareness of environmental responsibility, the role of humans is one of service. Humans provide complex control and management actions back to maximize the main power and survival of the whole system” (Odum, 1977, p. 117).

Cultural values are group norms or rules for behavior that make a culture work. Ethical values are our cultural DNA.  But our values can change in response to the conditions of the economy and environment. Our current value system is no longer working—money, science, laws, mores, politics, religion, and culture are becoming less meaningful to many. Traditional values of frugality, community cooperation, and a sense of responsibility or stewardship have been usurped by the capitalist consumption machine. The survival of the whole system is at stake, and ethics will begin to shift as old ways of doing and being endanger humanity. Eventually, those of us in developed countries will need to reduce our empower use by 80% or 90% (Odum, 2007, p. 392). Knowing what is right will consist of a process of continual change to relearn old ways and adapt to new ways of being. We need a new set of values and ethics for the future, as culture evolves to adapt to a lower energy world. Continue reading Energy ethics for survival of people in nature

Slapping bandaids on empire’s heart attack

Slapping bandaids on empire’s heart attack

by Mary Logan

“Before you get too exercised over the multiple idiocies and injustices of the current American medical situation just reflect for a moment that the whole creaking system cannot possibly survive no matter what the Supreme Court might have ruled or whatever Obama sought to accomplish. The US economic system is about to blow up. The banking sector has been kept technically alive on the life-support of accounting fraud since 2008, but that artful racket is coming to an end because sooner or later the abstraction called “money” must make truthful representations of itself in relation to reality, or else people cease to accept its claims of value. Without a functioning banking system none of the rackets organized into US health care can continue” (JH Kunstler, July 2, 2012).

Kunstler has succinctly summed up the big picture for American healthcare. We are slapping bandaids on empire’s heart attack. I am revisiting healthcare reform for two reasons. First, healthcare’s complexity creates a good exercise in broadening our scale of view. Secondly, now that healthcare reform is law, the question is, what does this new law mean for individuals at the small scale, and for the country at the larger national scale? Continue reading Slapping bandaids on empire’s heart attack

Goodbye Faculty: What’s the point of a University anyway?

by Tom Abel

La poule aux oeufs d’or 1905 movie poster (goose with the golden eggs)

Goodbye faculty, hello neoliberal MOOCs.  I read a NY Times article last week and was clued into a recent ‘innovation’ in education which may soon be sweeping the globe.  Massively Open Online Courses or MOOCs are being produced and promoted by some of the most prestigious universities in the world, such as a just announced MIT-Harvard ‘nonprofit’ partnership, and another with Stanford, Princeton, UPenn, and Michigan.  MOOC courses include video lesson segments, embedded quizzes, immediate feedback and student-paced learning, and most so far have been produced in the areas of engineering, computers, software, etc, but courses in all fields are clearly coming.  Most of the article is techy and upbeat, but they let this quote slip in.  George Siemens, a MOOC pioneer ominously said, “But if I were president of a mid-tier university, I would be looking over my shoulder very nervously right now, because if a leading university offers a free circuits course, it becomes a real question whether other universities need to develop a circuits course.”  Get it?  This is the end of universities as we know them.  A few top universities produce coursework for the world and there’s no need for any of the rest of you out there.  Still, the reporter tries to keep it positive and ends with this quote, “What’s still missing is an online platform that gives faculty the capacity to customize the content of their own highly interactive courses.”  That’s right, we’ll still need you to ‘customize’ the MOOC course for your classrooms.

So I started to search for articles on MOOCs.  It’s all tech hype and whiz-bang.  I could find nary a discouraging word.  And I certainly could not find what I was really looking for, which is the corporate strategy behind all of this.  Why are the big boys interested?  I have some of my own ideas that I will try to relate and that refer particularly to issues of peak and descent. Continue reading Goodbye Faculty: What’s the point of a University anyway?

The Unclear Lobby

No one really knows the net yield of nuclear power because at present its use is subsidized by fossil fuels in a thousand ways that cannot be estimated until we try to run a nuclear system without them. Will nuclear power have a more concentrated value than the wood output of the solar system, or of coal, or of cheap oil from rich deposits? The new power plant seems to be more economical than the competing fossil plants as long as it is running on the accumulated storages of nuclear fuel and fuel prospecting done on fossil-fuel subsidy. Is nuclear power at this level of net power delivery possible in a culture that does not have the accompanying fossil fuels? (Odum, 1971, p. 135).

by Mary Logan

I am broaching this topic in support of the Japanese people, in order to add my voice to the many who are challenging assumptions regarding the clean green nature of nuclear power. Choosing a nuclear future means that we choose profit over the future of humanity. The nuclear lobby is connected to climate change campaigns and the defense industry. The lobby deals in deception and omission; thus the title for this post that is part of a series of posts about laying siege to empire. Continue reading The Unclear Lobby

Laying Siege to Empire; Big Pharma Edition

by Mary Logan

Before we leave the subject of health policy, I would be remiss if I didn’t take an equal opportunity swipe at the big pharmaceutical companies in the United States as some of the biggest profit-makers in healthcare. To quote a commenter from last week’s post on Healthcare for All in the US, our healthcare system is a nightmare. This companion piece exposes our mental models regarding the subsystem of the pharmaceutical industry in the United States as a component of the most expensive healthcare system in the world. Big Pharma has managed to capture feedback loops in order to control the drug-making, approval, and marketing process so thoroughly that the physicians, the regulators, and the insurance industry all appear to be dancing to the rhythm that Big Pharma sets as a primary producer who generates much of the supply for the wellness factory in the United States. Continue reading Laying Siege to Empire; Big Pharma Edition

Healthcare for All in the U.S?


by Mary Logan

The discussions in the US this week surrounding the constitutionality of health insurance payment mandates and the fact that my terminal degree is in health policy helped me to choose a topic for this week’s post. The US Supreme Court question that the Justices are examining this week has to do with the issue of insurance payment mandates for individuals—is it constitutional? The goal of Obama’s The Affordable Care Act is a goal of healthcare for all within the existing system. One primary argument of those supporting the plan is that, while not perfect, the plan is a good start in transitioning to a universal healthcare system. Yet the plan and the current discussions make a number of unstated assumptions about a healthcare system embedded within a capitalist, free market economic system of the wealthiest country on the planet. These assumptions need to be exposed in order to view the problem systemically. I would suggest that these assumptions are not even correct to begin with for the existing system, and that the assumptions will become even less true in a permanently declining economy associated with peak oil. Rousseau said, “Good laws lead to the making of better ones; bad laws bring about worse.” In my opinion, creating bad laws now that assume that the current system can grow infinitely only lead to further catastrophe. Continue reading Healthcare for All in the U.S?

Cooperative Culture–Energy Characteristics

Together; The Rituals, Pleasures, and Politics of Cooperation, R. Sennett, 2012 Yale Univ. Press

by Mary Logan

Professor Dave Tilley suggested a review of Richard Sennett’s new book, Together; The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation.  The book was thoughtfully written. Sennett traces the nature and evolution of cooperation in society, and examines the reasons for the lack of cooperation in current society, and how we can reclaim it. He examines the relationship of cooperation to solidarity, competition, and ritual.  Sennett views cooperation realistically; he understands that cooperation is not innately benign, and has its own problems, as people who are bound together can then do harm to others. He discusses the need to rebuild cooperation using the metaphor of repair work embodied in a social workshop, as suggested by the book’s cover painting at right, Making a Staircase by Frances Johnston. He makes a number of fascinating points; for example, he describes the institutionalization of cooperation in the form of solidarity as the Left’s response to the evils of capitalism. Sennett ends the book with a quote from Jacob Burckhardt about modern times as an “age of brutal simplifiers”. Sennett suggests that: Continue reading Cooperative Culture–Energy Characteristics

What is Special about “A Prosperous Way Down”

by Thomas Abel

What does A Prosperous Way Down add to the many current discussions of Peak Oil, Transition, and Collapse?  What does it say that is different?  What unique contributions does it make?  And how does it jive with positions of others who are writing under the three topics listed above?

When I raised this question in our PWD workshop I did not honestly know the answer.  I assumed it would take some careful reading and distilling.  But I had forgotten that the Odums attempted to directly answer that question for us in Chapter 1.  I will summarize their answer, but first a general comment.

The ideas in this book are not ‘peak oil’ ideas.  It is not a book about fossil fuel extraction and diminishing returns, though those issues are there.  What immediately sets A Prosperous Way Down apart from other books about peak, transition, or collapse is its big ideas about all systems of nature—about air, sea, and land, about life, about energy, about culture and people.  The Odums’ recommendations for a prosperous descent are one outcome from a general theoretical understanding of all living and non-living systems and processes of the Earth in our Universe.  As the Odums say, Continue reading What is Special about “A Prosperous Way Down”